Google has reportedly shut down a YouTube channel run by two video bloggers over concerns that it was used in a Russian disinformation campaign during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Videos on the channel were apparently available until this week and portrayed Donald Trump in a positive light while casting Hillary Clinton and her campaign as racist and hostile to the black community, TechCrunch reported Oct.11.
The two video bloggers had similar accounts on other social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Facebook and Twitter removed the accounts in August after identifying them as being used to spread Russian-backed election propaganda, the Daily Beast reported in a separate story Oct. 8.
Google's move to do the same, which the company has neither confirmed nor explicitly denied, appears to be an outcome of a probe the company has reportedly launched into the use of its platforms by Russian operatives last year.
According to Reuters, the investigation has already led Google to discover that operatives with Russia ties spent thousands of dollars taking out ads on YouTube, Google Search and Gmail in an effort to meddle with the elections.
The entity or entities that took the ads out on Google's platforms appear to be different from the Kremlin-affiliated purchaser of similar ads on Facebook, Reuters said, citing unnamed people with knowledge of the Google investigation. The total amount of spending on the ads on Google's platforms by the alleged Russian operatives was apparently less than $100,000.
Google did not respond immediately to an eWEEK request seeking comment on its reported takedown of the YouTube account.
Google, like Facebook and Twitter, is being pressured to do more to prevent its platforms from being deliberately misused to spread election-related disinformation. There are many who believe that Russian operatives took advantage of the tremendous reach of these platforms to try to influence the election outcome.
The pressure on Google and the others to do something to prevent such abuse has put them in a somewhat untenable situation.
On the one hand, platforms such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook have thrived precisely because they have let users post messages and videos with little to no moderation. The platforms have for some time been considered among the biggest outlets for free speech and expression of opinions and sentiment on the internet.
Moves by Google to remove or block access to content have in the past led to accusations the company is abusing its power to censor and suppress online content and to control what information people receive.
At the same time, Google has also been accused of not doing enough to prevent its platforms from being abused by people with specific agendas and missions. Google, Twitter and Facebook, for instance, face multiple lawsuits from families of victims in recent terror attacks who allege the companies are aiding and abetting terror by allowing their platforms to be used to spread terror propaganda.
"Social media platforms are avenues for typical Americans—those without enough money to purchase expensive television or radio ads—to make their voices part of the national political dialogue," the Electronic Frontier Foundation said in commentary Oct. 10.
Government investigators probing Russian interference should be careful about blindly applying political ad rules to the online world, the rights advocacy group cautioned.
"Social media and digital communications have an enormous role in elections. On the whole, this is a good thing."
Rather than simply extending existing rules for TV, radio and cable to online companies like Google and Facebook, lawmakers should focus on better enforcement of existing mechanisms, the EFF noted. They also need to ensure that any measures they take do not impact anonymous speech or smaller online providers, it said.
Internet companies can do more as well, the EFF said. For example, they can do more to identify and block malicious bots that are being used to spread political propaganda. Companies such as Google and Facebook should also do a better job explaining why users are being served certain ads and allow independent audits of their data. "For election-related and political ads, arguing that ad placement processes and the tracking that underlies them are 'proprietary' just doesn't cut it anymore," the EFF said.